BOOK REVIEW / Local rules and out of bounds markers: Grammar and Style - Michael Dummett: Duckworth, pounds 8.95

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL Dummett was until recently Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford, and this small booklet is meant to remind us of the principles that should, he thinks, underpin English syntax and style. It is what we might call a guide to grammatical correctness, and shares with other forms of correctness a distressed and bossy tone that might not endear it to all readers.

Indeed it is not immediately clear that the Wykeham Professor is the best person to lay down the law about proper English, though there are, to be sure, equations between the rules of grammar and the arithmetical consistency of logic. But Dummett, though almost certainly up to the task, declines to develop his curt arguments into a sustained essay on linguistic morality. He was provoked, he says, by the horrid prose of the exam papers he was obliged to mark, and Grammar and Style is really a handy anthology of tips to inky-fingered undergraduates.

Probably it would have been more amusing had he culled his examples from the papers that so offended him. Every summer, a small list of entertaining schoolroom lapses is published in the press, and we all have a chuckle about the poor saps who wrote: 'Keats had an incredible capacity for imagination'; or 'Wordsworth went to the Lake District to answer the call of nature'. But it is no coincidence that Dummett has chosen to spare his students' blushes: he just doesn't see the funny side. The comedy of errors escapes him altogether.

Instead, he has rambled through newspapers in search of language abuse, and wagged his spectacles at the wrongdoers. Many of his examples are taken from the Independent - though this, he is swift to point out, indicates only that this is a paper he often reads.

Perhaps it is odd to be at all vexed by a book built on such obvious good taste. Dummett fingers all the common blunders, and his linguistic etiquette rests on two powerful ideas. He asserts, first, that our culture lives in the history of words, and that we should remain awake to the echoes of the past in our daily vocabulary. And he insists that language is pointless if it does not observe a common grammar.

He is stern about the encroaching sense that proper English is an elitist-imperialist-fascist-bourgeois plot to belittle those who do not speak it; and he has no time for those who feel that having their semi-colons adjusted is an affront to their cultural integrity. The idea that it is crass and conformist to speak as others do is one of the silliest products of pseudo-egalitarian thought: it is semantically impossible to have communities that cannot communicate. And nothing is more divisive than the notion that linguistic conformity is for suckers.

The question is: to what should we conform? Even those anxious to agree with Dummett's uncompromising position might find his detailed proscriptions hard to swallow. There's a lot of talk about the subjunctive and adverbial clauses and the placing of prepositions, but in effect, the language he is proposing as the norm is really English as spoken by Oxford dons of a certain age. Not everyone will see this as the glittering standard to which we all aspire.

Moreover, Grammar and Style addresses itself only to a utilitarian idea of language. It has nothing to say about literature, although Dummett is happy to give Milton and P G Wodehouse permission to split infinitives or muck around with cliches if they please - just so long as the rest of us aren't tempted to have a go. At its poetic best, one could argue, language is magical: it resembles the moment when a conjuror pulls the ace of diamonds out of our nostrils and makes - as someone once said - our hearts beat faster. But the needle of Dummett's correctness-meter does not flicker over such matters.

Nor, it must be said, is his own language likely to quicken anyone's pulse. It is tidy and well-dressed, but in seeking to observe old-fashioned proprieties of mood and grammar it sounds, at times, a little fussy and roundabout. There are plenty of having said whiches and that being the cases, and the result, a harsh critic would say, is a good deal of bleating around the bush.

There is, after all, such a thing as literary tact. Dummett's central thesis is not remotely elitist, but he does himself few favours by proposing, as a model of a compound question, the sentence: 'When you are in Oxford, do you dine in college?' Good manners can, in the wrong company, appear merely snooty and disdainful. Dummett counters this line of criticism in his conclusion. The language has not, he insists, irrevocably renounced its rules. 'On the contrary, many people, reading prose written in conformity to them, find it exceptionally clear or pleasing, without being able to analyse why it makes this impression on them.'

Probably he is right that not many people will be able to analyse exactly what is so clear and pleasing about this stiff, repetitive sentence. But the truly unsatisfying thing about this argument is: that's it. The sentence stands alone, begging about a thousand questions and casting doubt on the otherwise sensible advice with which the book is full.

The same problem recurs in a section called 'Ideological and other uses'. This is a tasty subject, even for a chapter of only seven pages. Dummett contents himself with attacking three feminist totems: the use of gender, the awkwardness surrounding the politically-incorrect use of 'he' to mean either sex, and the use of 'man' to mean 'humankind'.

Is this all that ideology means - the zealous defence of a few feminist bogeys? Naturally, he is right to point out that gender refers to the masculinity or femininity of nouns, and has nothing to do with sex, which describes the masculinity or femininity of people. But this new use of the word 'gender' breaks none of his rules concerning clarity, simplicity and so on; and since the word is hardly ever used in its true, or old, sense, it does not seem unreasonable to retrieve it from obscurity and give it a new job. Besides, it was always a pointless word: English nouns do not have gender, let alone sex.

Attempts to regulate something so supple and dynamic as the language always have a doomed, Canute-ish quality. In the end, Dummett's book resembles nothing so much as a newspaper style book, an eclectic bunch of local rules - use the active tense, not the passive; avoid metaphors you have not minted yourself - with a few prejudices thrown in for good measure. This newspaper's editor has a particular grudge against the term 'of course', on the grounds that it is an indulgent, unnecessary and self-congratulatory tic. He is quite right (of course), though even here one cannot help feeling that rules are made for breaking.